Published 5:34 pm, Thursday, January 13, 2011
Dear EarthTalk: Are Atlantic bluefin tuna really about to go extinct? What are the contributing factors and what is being done to try to head off this tragedy? -- Edward Jeffries, Norwalk, Conn.
According to many marine biologists, Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of three closely related bluefin tuna species, are in danger of going extinct within a decade if the governments of the world can't come together to ban catching and/or selling the lucrative species. The non-profit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains an international "Red List" of threatened species, considers the Atlantic bluefin "Critically Endangered" given that its population numbers have declined by upwards of 80 percent since the 1970s. Even recently instituted stricter restrictions on allowable catch levels may be too little too late for the huge migratory fish.
The trouble began in the 1960s when fishing boats using purse seines and long lines to pull in fish for the canned tuna market harvested huge numbers of juvenile Atlantic bluefin. This highly efficient method of fishing decimated generations of Atlantic bluefin, constraining their reproductive capacity accordingly.
Today, catch limits for Atlantic bluefin -- even more in demand worldwide for sushi -- are implemented and enforced by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a multinational group of fisheries regulators charged with maintaining sustainable levels of tuna throughout the Atlantic and neighboring waters. In 2007, ICCAT set the international annual catch limit for Atlantic bluefin at 30,000 tons; double what the commission's own scientists recommended. More recently, ICCAT's scientists recommended lowering the limit to 7,500 tons; ICCAT compromised with fishing interests and settled on a 13,500 ton limit. But despite these rules, analysts estimate that the fishing industry is actually still harvesting around 60,000 tons of Atlantic bluefin annually. ICCAT says that if stocks have not rebounded by 2022 it would consider closing down some tuna fishing areas.
With ICCAT's limits having little effect on the animal's decline, environmentalists took their case to the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in hopes of getting an international ban on the harvesting and sale of Atlantic bluefin. But in March 2010, 68 nations voted down the proposal; 20 countries, including the U.S., voted for it, while 30 others abstained. The leading opponent of the ban, Japan -- which consumes three-quarters of all bluefin tuna caught around the world -- argued that ICCAT was the proper regulatory body to sustain Atlantic bluefin population numbers.
As for what concerned individuals can do, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding bluefin tuna -- sometimes called hon maguro or toro (tuna belly) at the supermarket and at restaurants -- altogether. And that would not only be a good environmental move but good for your health, too: The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading environmental group, recently issued a health advisory recommending that people avoid eating Atlantic bluefin due to elevated levels of neurotoxins including mercury and PCBs that can be found in the fish's tissue. It seems the only way we can continue to live with bluefin tuna and so many other at-risk marine wildlife species is to live without them on our dinner plates.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that organic tobacco production is booming in the U.S.? And are cigarettes made from organic tobacco any healthier for smokers? -- Nanci R., Petaluma, Calif.
To say business is booming would be an exaggeration, but it is true that many American tobacco farmers are beginning to transition to organic growing methods. Given the hard times growers have faced in recent decades -- most Americans now revile smoking and farmers in other countries can produce higher volumes for substantially less cost -- going organic is one way to keep charging premium prices. While growing organically costs more and yields a slightly less marketable product, farmers can make up the difference and then some since their organic tobacco will command double the price of their competitors' conventionally grown, chemical-laden variety.
Companies like Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company and Organic Smoke, Inc., for example, are willing to pay this premium for the privilege of marketing the resulting "natural" cigarettes -- which also avoid the chemical fillers and even extra nicotine of the standard smoke -- as friendlier to the environment. Of course, buyers beware: No cigarette is good for you, whether it contains organic tobacco or not. If you have to smoke, a so-called "natural" cigarette will expose you to fewer toxins overall, but the primary risk still comes from the inhaled carcinogenic smoke of the burning tobacco leaves.
For its part, Santa Fe, maker of the American Spirit brand of "natural" cigarettes, has seen sales increase 10 percent yearly over the last decade to the point where its sales account for about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. cigarette market. During its first year of business two decades ago, Santa Fe bought and processed 4,000 pounds of organic tobacco. In 2008, the company processed two million pounds. Upwards of 100 different farms spread across the U.S., Canada and Brazil now provide Santa Fe with organic tobacco leaf.
Besides buying only organic tobacco and eschewing chemical fillers, the company walks the socially responsible talk, too, powering its facilities with clean energy, extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners, and donating funds and volunteer time to the clean-up of New Mexico's Santa Fe River.
But what even some of its own customers may not know -- you won't find it on the packaging -- is that Santa Fe's profits are all going toward the bottom line of its corporate parent, Reynolds American, an outgrowth of longtime leading cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds, purveyor of such esteemed conventional brands as Camel, Winston and Salem. Reynolds American, which today sells one out of every three cigarettes sold in the U.S., rolled up Santa Fe as part of a major reorganization in 2004 and has been reaping the benefits of the growth in sales of cigarettes made with organic tobacco ever since.
Growing organic tobacco also benefits the burgeoning organic farming business overall: "Organic certification allows the growth of other high-value seasonal crops, which can demand a premium price on the ever-expanding organic market," Santa Fe's leaf director, Fielding Daniel, told the trade publication Tobacco Farm Quarterly, adding that growers are heartened by this new and profitable market and worry less about the cost of, and risk of mishandling, synthetic chemicals.
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